Every new year is an opportunity to reflect, as we pause to look back at what has passed and perhaps to spare a moment to anticipate what may come.
This new year, however, is like no other. The year on which we look back has been one of the most testing our society has ever experienced in peacetime. The year ahead continues to hold challenges undreamed of a mere 12 months ago.
All of us, to one degree or another, have experienced so much that has been heartbreaking. But I am sure all of us have experienced much that has been heartwarming too.
The virus may have brought great destruction, but has been met with an even greater determination and with a spirit of sacrifice seen in every aspect of our society – from the dedicated staff of our National Health Service to our public services, businesses, emergency workers, Armed Forces, volunteers and charities.
I particularly wanted to mention one of those charities; an organisation that seems to me to embody the best of how our community has responded, not just to the sudden onslaught of the pandemic, but to the long, relentless battle against illness and all its attendant challenges.
For the last 23 years, I have been proud to be patron of Macmillan Cancer Support and, during that time, I have met countless people whose lives have been touched by cancer. I never cease to be inspired by those who have tirelessly dedicated themselves to helping them. They seem to me to exemplify so many of the qualities that, in a time of great trial, are a cause for immense admiration and gratitude.
In some ways, the pandemic has given us all, collectively, a sense of how, in any year, an individual affected by a cancer diagnosis can find their world changed beyond all recognition – their past now unrecognisable, their future uncertain.
This is why, as we contemplate the tasks that 2021 holds for us, I hope we can spare a moment to think of all those affected by cancer who not only share the challenges we all face, but who also have their own momentous, personal struggles as well, which have been made all the heavier by the extraordinary changes to all our lives.
Almost three million people in the United Kingdom are living with cancer – a number that is expected to increase. Receiving a cancer diagnosis or going through treatment can be among the most frightening experiences imaginable, even in normal times.
And our times, this past year, have been far from normal. In many cases, due to the pandemic, difficulties have become crises, a sense of isolation has become actual separation, and – as vital treatment or surgery has in some cases been postponed – anxiety has become despair.
The impact of the pandemic on cancer care is practical as well as emotional. Macmillan estimates an additional 50,000 people in the United Kingdom are now missing a cancer diagnosis they would otherwise have received. This makes the work of the charity’s professionals and volunteers all the more vital.
Earlier in 2020, Macmillan set up a new online Covid hub to provide around-the-clock guidance and advice for people affected by cancer. It has also run its free helpline (0808 808 00 00) seven days a week, providing clinical, practical and financial support.
At the same time, vital emotional support has been provided by a truly wonderful group of volunteers who participate in Macmillan’s new ‘Telephone Buddies’ – a 12-week support system for people with cancer who may be isolated from loved ones.
Macmillan has been adapting to this ever-evolving situation to ensure that cancer does not become ‘the Forgotten C’ during the pandemic but, even so, Covid has taken a devastating toll, with the charity losing a third of its fundraised income.
These are truly daunting circumstances. However, a charity set up to tackle cancer is not easily daunted and, as we have seen throughout this last year, right across our country the formidable will and compassion of the British people have outshone every darkness.
I have no doubt that the kindness and generosity which has been so much in evidence during this past year will sustain these life-saving services in the months that lie ahead. Compassion, we have learned, has not become fatigued; it has strengthened with use. Sacrifice has become second nature.
Giving has become not an act, but an attitude. These hard-won qualities will surely continue to protect our most vulnerable fellow citizens through the year ahead, even as the vaccination programme brings us hope that this pernicious threat will be finally overcome and our lives may resume their familiar patterns once again.
We have lived through one of the most anxious and uncertain of years. Much has been suffered; much has been lost. But much, too, has been rediscovered: an endurance that we somehow always knew was the bedrock of our character; a compassion that we trusted lay at the heart of our values; a courage which we sensed could always be called upon in the hour of greatest need.
In this crisis, the people of this country have not proved wanting; they have proved themselves equal to the highest of our ideals, inheritors of the best of our traditions and worthy of the momentous history in which they, too, have now played their part.